Theresa May’s first meeting with Donald Trump was widely judged to have been a success.
Not only was May the first foreign leader to meet the new President, but she also found Trump of a mind to say some positive things about the UK-US ‘special’ relationship; even if his affection for it seemed as much based on his own Scottish ancestry and business interests, both of which he mentioned in the short press conference, as it did on any policy considerations. For Trump, the personal is the political and vice versa. This was a visit heavy on symbolism, from May’s multiple references to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in her earlier speech to the Republican retreat in Philadelphia, to the two leaders dressed in Republican red and bonding for the cameras in front of the recently reinstalled bust of Winston Churchill. But there was substance too, in particular when May set out an ambitious vision for a revitalised UK-US relationship.
“We have the opportunity to lead, together, again.” May declared in Philadelphia. “Because the world is passing through a period of change – and in response to that change we can either be passive bystanders, or we can take the opportunity once more to lead. And to lead together.” Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that Trump, who boasts that his guiding tenet will be ‘America First’, is ready to embrace a role of leading the free world, at least not in the sense that leadership might involve providing example and inspiration to others. And to the extent that he does accept this role, it is not clear how he would be assisted in it by a UK that has shown itself both willing to diminish its potential relevance to America and to weaken itself economically by leaving the European Union. The viability of Theresa May’s vision of a ‘global Britain’, her rebranding of the EU referendum result not as the wish of the UK populace to reject Europe, but as a statement of their desire for the UK to embrace its historic place in the world, is questionable at best.
The ‘special’ relationship is clearly one-sided, venerated much more in London than it is in Washington. But British diplomats draw some comfort from their belief that the UK, as America’s foremost friend, has special privileges and influence when it comes to telling America when it is wrong. In Philadelphia, Theresa May was not shy to point out to the Republican Party the policies on which the UK would find it difficult to see eye-to-eye with the new Administration – for example, dealing with Russia, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the importance of NATO. She expected that the UK and US would disagree, but argued that they would continue to be brought together by “hugely powerful” common interests and values. But when just two days later Trump issued his executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim countries and suspending the admission of refugees, May initially declined to condemn this ugly, excessive and discriminatory action. Other European leaders were left to stand up for the West’s values, May herself eventually releasing only weak disapproving remarks through a spokesman following scathing domestic criticism of her position – a petition to prevent Trump from making a State Visit to the UK has attracted more than a million signatures. Even then, when Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was ordered to make representations to Washington, it was to lobby narrowly for the rights of British dual citizens, rather than the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” When Theresa May looked into Donald Trump’s eyes, did she get a sense of his soul? If so, what did she sense to make her so reluctant to voice all but the mildest criticism of her new friend?
The UK population was asked, last June, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The question was clear enough, but the details of its implementation are, it has become apparent, open to wildly differing understandings. Theresa May’s government has interpreted the slim 52-48% majority leave vote as a mandate to quit the single market and to walk away without any trade deal with the EU if the terms are deemed to be too punitive. They have argued that the need to have control over immigration (a longstanding preoccupation for May) is more important than accepting the free movement of people. And they have evoked instead a vision of a global Britain able to trade and do business all around the world, including with its largest economy – now in the hands of a man who has pledged to “follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.” This is a high risk strategy and the chances of success are slim. But if the price also includes an unwillingness to stand up for what is right – to sacrifice the values that have bound European nations together on the altar of economic and political expediency – this is too high a price to pay.